Evensong 29th January 2017
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
Sermon for Evensong Candlemas – 29 January 2017 – Haggai 2: 1 – 9; John 2: 18 – 22; Psalm 132
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2: 19)
Today we’re celebrating the festival of Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. This morning as part of our All Age Eucharist we had a short simple drama when members of the congregation acted out the story of the day when Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple at about six weeks old. Candlemas marks the end of the season of Epiphany. We look back to Christmas – and we look forward to the Passion. Every week at Evensong – and we have just heard it - we hear the Nunc Dimittis, the old man Simeon’s prophetic song when He sees the baby. And Simeon then tells Mary of the pain she is to suffer because of her son. The Temple is centre-stage – or rather is the stage – for all of our readings today. But what was the place of the Temple for the people of Israel? And what light does this throw on Jesus’ strange words about himself that we heard in our second reading?
From the Exodus until they settled in the Promised Land and built the Temple, the Hebrew people carried with them the Ark of the Covenant, a rectangular box made from gold-covered wood and surmounted by two cherubim. Inside the ark were the tables of the Law as given to Moses. The Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God with His people. While they were wandering, the cloud of God’s glory settled upon it and travelled with the people (Exodus 40: 34f). When the ark was permanently lodged within the Temple, its home was at the heart of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, which the High Priest alone entered only once a year. The first Temple was built during the reign of Solomon in the 10th century BC and is described in the first book of Kings. It became the central sanctuary of the nation, and here alone, according to the regulations in the book of Deuteronomy, could sacrificial worship be offered.
According to the book of Chronicles, when the Ark was brought into the Temple, the glory of the Lord filled the place like a cloud so that the priests were unable to minister (2 Chronicles 5:13 – 14). This Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians early in the 6th century BC. Our first reading this evening from the prophet Haggai refers to its rebuilding later in the same century. The rebuilt Temple suffered desecration in the 2nd century BC, but was reconstructed and richly adorned by Herod the Great. This is the version of the building which was standing in Jesus’ time and where sacrificial worship still took place. It was later destroyed by the Romans - in 70 AD.
For the people of Israel the Temple was the locus of the presence of God with His people. The place of holiness. It was also the place of sacrifice. The Book of Leviticus sets out detailed regulations for different types of sacrifice depending on the circumstance, including sacrifices for sin. Luke tells us that when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple they brought with them the appropriate sacrifice of turtle-doves or pigeons. The Temple was also the centre of worship for the whole community to which everyone must go – hence Mary and Joseph, as observant Jews, are obliged to make the journey.
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
When Jesus spoke these words he had just been causing havoc in the outer courts of the Temple by chasing out the tradespeople who made money by selling animals for sacrifice and overturning the tables of the moneychangers who exchanged normal coinage for special Temple money. He was appalled at practices which exploited for gain those who came to worship. When he claimed to be able to rebuild the Temple in three days he was not, as His hearers thought, and as the Gospel-writer explains, speaking about the large and magnificent Temple building, but about His own body. This is his somewhat cryptic answer to those who question His authority to decide what can be allowed in the Temple. It can only be understood in the light of His resurrection. And it is a huge claim.
Jesus, present as God with His people in human form, is now Himself the Temple. He replaces the magnificent building with its long history and traditions of worship. He is now the locus of the presence of God in the world. He is (or rather, will be) the place of sacrifice; the sacrifice which finally deals with the sin of the world. A complete once for all sacrifice, which lasts for all time, unlike the constant and repeated sacrifices which the priests must offer. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:11 – 12). Jesus is now the centre of worship to whom all must go. And unlike the Temple, Jesus can never be destroyed. Because Jesus died, rose again and now lives in all of us who follow Him. And so, as we are about to sing:
Christ is our corner-stone,
On him alone we build;
With his true saints alone
The courts of heaven are filled:
On his great love our hopes we place
Of present grace and joys above.